Here’s the first article in a planned few-parter on shooters. Think of it as a preamble. To keep my ambition in check for this first installment, I’ll just talk about two shooters in particular that have piqued my interest.
As we all know, just before Christmas in 2011 something very unexpected happened: GSC Game World, famed Ukrainian developer of the beloved-here-at-Tap S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series, abruptly shut down. No one. Really. Knows. Why. My own normally-loquacious sources inside the company стало тихо; a couple of rumors floated around but nothing was ever confirmed and nothing ever will be. I’m reasonably sure it wasn’t money, but even that’s speculation. Suffice to say that GSC Game World exists now only as a name and (maybe) some IP, and most of the newly unemployed staff went off to form Vostok Games. Unable to secure the STALKER IP from their old home, they began work on Survarium, the MMOFPS that looks remarkably like STALKER 2 but isn’t.
A lot of people, myself included, are dying to know why this happened. By all accounts GSC was doing well financially. Wondering is a waste of time on our part, though, because we’re not going to find out. Consider the sage recent words of one Cliff Bleszinski, he formerly of Epic Games and Gears of War fame, speaking in a different but relevant context:
I’m going to let you in on a little secret. When someone leaves a company there’s what publicly is stated and there’s what really happened.
And you’re likely to never, ever know it.
Even if someone at GSC, someone in a position to know the truth, was willing to share, they’re probably not able. Were vodka involved their tongues might loosen, but I doubt it; Ukrainians are pretty vodka-sturdy and can handle their drink.
So yeah, I’m really curious about the whys because so much of the GSC story doesn’t make sense, but my curiosity is the only thing that would be sated by learning more. Those answers aren’t truly relevant. What matters isn’t why GSC shut down, what matters is what’s Vostok up to with this Survarium thing they’ve been talking about.
From what we know, Survarium is a massively multiplayer shooter in the vein of STALKER, but not set in the same universe, because it’s not STALKER 2. It will bear a lot of similarities – roving anomalies, blighted landscape, valuable artifacts – but it is not STALKER 2.
(It’s totally STALKER 2. They just can’t call it that because they couldn’t get the IP.)
The real difference is the multiplayer thing. All three STALKER games had traditional multiplayer deathmatch and the like. Nobody ever played them. Nobody ever plays the multiplayer in most shooters that inevitably ship with it, something publishers refuse to get through their heads.
Survarium is a free to play persistent world MMOFPS, more along the lines of Planetside than team deathmatch. It’s factions and alliances, player-driven objectives tossed in with scripted instance-based questing, a combination of PvP and PvE with the exploration, scavenging, and loot mechanics (we think) of STALKER thrown in for good measure. If we look at Survarium as a logical extension of STALKER into the realm of persistent multiplayer, it makes perfect sense – the big open world, with STALKER’s inane NPC factions replaced by human-controlled ones. The well-done AI-managed faction territory wars of Clear Sky should be even more dynamic in the hands of strategic players.
Unfortunately the idea of multiplayer is always glossy compared to the reality. People are dicks; people try to break the games they’re playing; people drop out of raids because they lose interest or didn’t get the loot they wanted or their Mom called them or the house is on fire. The other people were the main reason I could never get into Planetside or Planetside 2. Both were fine games, but a combination of inherently steep learning curve and the sense that everyone around me, even at their nicest, were simply tolerating a noob they were light-years beyond, conspired to turn me off.
I am not enamored of the idea that Survarium, the spiritual successor to STALKER even if they insist that it’s not, is going to be an MMO game. I just… I don’t care for MMOs. I haven’t tried really hard to like them, it’s true, and maybe I haven’t given them a fair shake. But in general when I play online I want to do it under controlled conditions with self-selecting groups of people I can
(A) strangle in real life
(B) cut off all contact with
How, then, can Survarium work for me? Two ways: it can either allow players to pretty readily ignore the online elements and have their own adventures, or it can work like a recent online phenomenon that you might have heard of, but which we haven’t spoken about here.
Let’s Talk About Zombies
Our Mat C has a gift for earnest talk:
I love zombies. Like, really love zombies. I’d marry one if I could.
He’s since married a living human being, so he didn’t mean the above to imply that he would only marry a zombie, just that he’d be willing to do so if the law allowed. I admire that level of passion. Me, I’m… I’m in favor of zombies. Certainly I support zombie marriage, and I strongly believe that zombie/human couples should have the same rights as any other. But I’m not sure I’d marry one myself. I don’t find most zombies attractive. I like them though! I have zombie friends.
About six months ago an honest to bejeezus phenomenon swept the internet – Day Z, a total conversion for the impenetrably complex war simulator Arma 2. Out of the blue Day Z came, and was downloaded something like a trillion times in a week. Sales of Arma 2 skyrocketed; the mod’s creator was quickly hired by Arma creator Bohemia Interactive. What caused this sudden interest?
Day Z is a server-based, large-scale multiplayer tactical shooter set in the wake of a zombie apocalypse. Not immediately after, either – you get the impression that by the time Day Z starts the zombies have already taken over. It’s a game of survival through scrounging, avoidance, and staggering permadeath difficulty. You don’t even start with a weapon in Day Z, and you’re going to need one. Technically it included a number of really interesting innovations, such as persistence across servers, so dropping off one and onto another allowed you to retain whatever crap you’d picked up, including any injuries or maladies. Day Z was (and still is) very much an alpha release; I wouldn’t recommend you try it unless you’re willing to spend several hours getting it to work. Wait instead for the standalone release that Bohemia has promised.
I myself only played it once, for about five hours or so. I was plagued at the time with a spotty internet connection that tried desperately to ruin the experience for me, and ultimately I did have to drop out of the game, bidding farewell to Gregg, Armand, and a couple others we’d scrounged up to give this thing a try.
What happened to me in those five hours? Not a god damned thing, to be honest. I died four times: blood loss (zombie bite), blood loss (fell in a hole and got one of those bone-poking-through-flesh fractures), hypothermia (fell in a cold stream), shot in the face (bandit).
Fifth time being the charm I finally hooked up with Gregg after walking about a million miles through Day Z’s gloomy eastern European landscape. Players don’t start together, you see, so if you want to meet up with friends you need to find them in a vast and inhospitable landscape. We never found Armand, who narrated his adventures over Skype, between giving instructions on the dozens of keyboard commands you need to play the game.
In those five hours I pulled the trigger once.
“Don’t shoot your gun,” Armand warned in dire tones. “Don’t shoot unless you mean it. Everything will hear that shot for miles around.” Zombies aren’t the only threat; they’re hardly even the real threat. The real threat is other people who want your socks and cans of cat food, who want the soggy book of matches you found in a creek bed.
Based on this it could be argued that Day Z isn’t a “shooter” at all, since you don’t do much shooting in it. And honestly, hearing the description doesn’t really sell it, right?
More than I’m Making It Sound, Trust Me
I can’t adequately explain why, but Day Z was a hell of a lot of fun. Very buggy and very flawed, but it had promise: this slow-paced tactical game of survival, where the penalty for failure was so high it made the Souls games look gentle, where your friends are all that stands between life and death so you’d better pick them carefully. A shooter where a gunshot would get the attention not just of zombies but of everyone who happened to be listening, and who may then come to investigate. A game where your first reaction on rounding a corner and running into another survivor is to simultaneously clutch and half-raise your weapon, waiting, appraising, not wanting to be first to make a deadly assumption but knowing you’d better not be second, heartbeats ticking along, maybe he’s friendly, maybe he’s not alone, then by some telepathy lowering your arms and cautiously greeting the stranger (or sensing something and snapping to, risking that earsplitting blam – only one of course, only shoot once, you only have three bullets, if you don’t kill him outright you can always finish him with a hatchet, or just wing him and leave him to die). A game where owning a hatchet, three bullets, and a compatible gun marks you as pretty damned wealthy.
When I finally ran into Gregg he and I lurked our way through tall grass near a rail station and then across a wide field toward some high-tension wires we saw in the distance. That was supposed to be our meet-up point with Armand. Halfway there we encountered some other dude. I almost missed him, he looked like a moss-covered rock to me, crouching there among some tree stumps, but Gregg saw him and emitted a strangled verbal warning Skype translated as “steerpigeddown!”
If I died it would take me hours to find Gregg again, so I was risking nothing. I faceplanted in the grass.
“What is it? What is it?” Armand, countless miles away. Skype is awesome.
Neither of us answered, as though speaking in the real world might give something away. I cautiously prairie-dogged, seeing this new person for the first time.
We were two and he was one and I had an empty revolver and Gregg had an assault rifle, the lucky dog, though he’d risked his balls to get it going into a zombie-infested military airbase thing before we ran into each other. The other guy had a gun too, but either it wasn’t loaded or he didn’t like his odds because almost immediately the text chat flashed
SON”TS HOOT FEIENDTY
An odd thing to say, to be sure. We considered this strange message in silence for a moment.
“‘Don’t shoot, friendly?’” Gregg finally suggested.
“What is it? What’s happening? Where the fuck are you guys??” Armand.
And that’s how Jan joined our group, and two became three.
Day Z has a STALKER-like eeriness about it, a sense of solitude unbroken even by the company of others. Even with Gregg, Armand, and I chattering away I felt pretty alone in the game. Arma 2’s dated graphics engine and muddy palette contributes to this somewhat. A little later, Gregg, Jan, and I lay flat on our bellies at the top of a rise, peering through binoculars at a mowed field. Those cylindrical rolls of hay lay scattered about, and I found myself thinking that the farmer must have cut them just hours or days before the zombie apocalypse began in earnest.
Shambling among the rolled bales were the walking dead, maybe seven or eight of them – definitely more than we could take. Jan’s rifle was indeed bullet-less as I’d surmised, meaning it would’ve fallen to Gregg to deal with all of them. Opposite the field a farmhouse beckoned tantalizingly, its open door a black maw. A farmhouse is a farmhouse the world over: a farmhouse means a farm kitchen, with pies and strings of sausage, home-canned preserves, flour and cornmeal and maybe some chocolate. A farmhouse means scythes and knives and, god willing, even a shotgun or two. But we didn’t dare. First, the zombies in the field. Second, the farmhouse door was open… meaning someone (or thing) had been inside already, maybe still was. Third, Armand was supposed to meet us about three miles on at those transmission lines. So we let it be.
My connection dropped for good and all just as we reached the wires and started hunting around for Armand, and that was the first and last time I ever played Day Z. But I took profound memories from the experience, and a conviction about shooters in general, multiplayer shooters specifically.
Where Do We Go Now
Part of that conviction relates to Survarium: if it is going to work, if it’s going to lure both MMOFPS fans and the STALKER faithful, it needs to take its cues from Day Z and nothing else. If I can play the game with a group of people I select, if it’s designed with that small-group structure in mind, I can see Survarium working out. Better still, I’d like some indication that though Survarium is being built as a multiplayer experience, it can be played and enjoyed solo.
It’s safe to assume that Survarium will share STALKER’s eerie, lonely art direction. We’ve seen sufficient evidence of that in alpha gameplay videos, and besides, it’s essentially being created by the same studio under a different name. That too is welcome, and will help. Alone, though, it wouldn’t be enough. Not if they tie it to a multiplayer model that bugs me.
I’m far from confident about Survarium’s potential. Vostok’s decision to focus on freemium multiplay strikes me as a bad one, not just bad but risky as well. There are a million technical reasons why persistent online games are harder to do, and we can all agree that GSC Game World, for all its technical innovation, was never exactly known for its technical fundamentals – they coded a second-to-none AI and tied it to one of the most moody, unreliable renderers in modern history. Now the same people have taken a new name and decided to build a game that’s even more computationally demanding than the STALKER series was.
Confidence is not terrifically high for Survarium. It’s probably not helped by the fact that Vostok Games’ website is perennially down, though the studio has been pretty good about Tweeting and releasing status videos. The upcoming standalone release of Day Z is going to be a telling moment for the future of online shooters. Was the game just a craze that’s passed? Or will it resonate long term?
A fair number of people are playing Planetside 2, and Trion Worlds’ Defiance – it of the television show tie-in – passed a million subscribers just today. Both of those games are more traditional shooty shooters, and I reiterate: if Survarium attempts to go that route, it’s doomed already. But if takes its cues – all its cues – from Day Z, a game that so obviously took all its cues from STALKER, there’s a chance.
Shooters are changing. Long years have passed since DOOM and Wolfenstein 3D defined the format. That’s perfectly fine with me; I’ve been ready for shooters to change for some time. Not that I don’t like a good pure shooter now and then… witness my unabashed love of People Can Fly’s work. Painkiller and Bulletstorm both hold precious spots in my heart. But it’s telling, you know, that People Can Fly’s leadership left the studio a few months ago to found a new one. And The Astronauts’ first game, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, is apparently not just not a shooter, it will be completely without violence of any kind. Even people who created some of the best pure shooters in the world are ready for something a little less shooty.
Maybe it’s more than just shooters that are changing, maybe gaming is changing, and we’re changing with it. I want the best for Survarium because I loved and still love STALKER, because of that afternoon spent with Day Z (but more importantly with my gang of players), because I do see some potential there. I’m not convinced that Vostok Games will deliver what I seek, or even that they’re trying to. But as the vision of what a shooter truly is begins to slowly crystallize, I can’t help but believe that someone will, and sooner rather than later.
Next up in the series: what the future holds, according to people more qualified to speculate than I.
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